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Democrat Hopes to Benefit by Comparison

THE NATION

In a fierce Montana race, Jon Tester's best asset may be that he isn't Sen. Conrad Burns.

September 03, 2006|Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writer

As Duane Guenthner, a retired oil worker, put it at a rally where Tester spoke last month: "The biggest thing Jon Tester has going for him right now is Conrad's foot."

Even Burns admits he is a walking gaffe machine.

"I can self-destruct in one sentence," Burns told a campaign rally last month in Billings. "Sometimes in one word."

At a fundraiser attended by First Lady Laura Bush on Wednesday, Burns offered the comment that the U.S. faces terrorists who "drive taxicabs in the daytime and kill at night." The remark was criticized as anti-Muslim. A spokesman later said the senator was simply pointing out terrorists could be anywhere.

Burns has apologized in past years for calling Arabs "ragheads" and, in another instance, for recounting someone else's racial epithet and saying that living with blacks in Washington, D.C., was a major "challenge."

In July, Burns issued an apology to federal firefighters battling a wildfire in Montana, whom he publicly berated for doing a terrible job, according to one of the workers.

Last month, he raised eyebrows when he interrupted his own speech at a campaign rally to take a cellphone call from the maintenance man at his suburban Virginia home.

"Hugo is a nice little Guatemalan man who is doing some painting for me," Burns explained to the crowd as he flipped his phone shut. "No, he's terrific. Love him."

The Tester campaign, which has hired a video "tracker" to film all of Burns' public appearances, wasted no time in posting the clip on YouTube, the video-sharing website.

Many nonpartisan political experts rate the race a toss-up, but at least two of them -- influential analysts Stuart Rothenberg and Larry J. Sabato -- have moved their assessment of the race to Tester's favor.

Rothenberg says the state is currently "leaning" toward the Democrat; Sabato rates the race a "likely" Democratic pickup.

Still, Burns is a resourceful politician and takes credit for steering hundreds of millions in federal funds to Montana. In this sparsely populated state, many voters say they have had personal contact with Burns, and can cite an example of him responding to a concern or straightening out a problem.

Despite pledging in 1988 to serve no more than two terms, he survived a brutal race in 2000 for a third term, besting now-Gov. Schweitzer with 51% of the vote.

Given the interest that both parties have in the race, it is generally expected to be the most expensive race ever in Montana.

Tester said he would emphasize a campaign theme that he struck in several recent appearances, including a rally in Laurel, a farm town just west of Billings.

"Real Montana is ready for real change," Tester said. "Government just isn't working for regular folks."

And then, smoothing his hand over his flattop, he added: "I may not look like a lot of other senators. But isn't it time the Senate looked a little bit more like Montana?"

sam.verhovek@latimes.com

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